We seem to be fascinated by bad behavior. Our popular culture is all agog with grifters and assholes. As TV Blog’s Adam Buckman wrote in March: “Two brand-new limited series premiering this week appear to be part of a growing trend in which some of recent history’s most notorious innovators and disruptors are getting the scripted-TV treatment.”
The two series Buckman was talking about were “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber,” about Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, and “The Dropout,” about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes.
But those are just two examples from a bumper crop of shows about bad behavior. My streaming services are stuffed with stories of scammers. In addition to the two series Buckman mentioned, I just finished Shonda Rhimes’ Netflix series “Inventing Anna,” about Anna Sorokin, who posed as an heiress named Anna Delvey.
All these treatments tread a tight wire of moral judgement, where the examples are presented as antisocial, but in a wink-and-a-nod kind of way, where we not so secretly admire these behaviors. Much as the actions are harmful to well-being of the collective “we,” they do appeal to the selfishness and ambition of “me.”
Most of the examples given are rags to riches to retribution stores (Holmes was an exception with her upper-middle-class background). The sky-high ambitions of Kalanick Holmes and Sorokin were all eventually brought back down to earth. Sorokin and Holmes both ended up in prison, and Kalanick was ousted from the company he founded.
But with the subtlest of twists, they didn’t have to end this way. They could have been the story of almost any corporate America hustler who triumphed. With a little more substance and a little less scam, you could swap Elizabeth Holmes for Steve Jobs. They even dressed the same.
Obviously, scamming seems to sell. These people fascinate us. Part of the appeal is no doubt due a class conflict narrative: the scrappy hustler climbing the social ranks by whatever means possible. We love to watch “one of us” pull the wool over the eyes of the social elite.
In the case of Anna Sorokin, Laura Craik dissects our fascination in a piece published in the UK’s Evening Standard:
“The reason people are so obsessed with Sorokin is simple: she had the balls to pull off on a grand scale what so many people try and fail to pull off on a small one. To use a phrase popular on social media, Sorokin succeeded in living her best life — right down to the clothes she wore in court, chosen by a stylist. Like Jay Gatsby, she was a deeply flawed embodiment of The American Dream: a person from humble beginnings who rose to achieve wealth and social status. Only her wealth was borrowed and her social status was conferred via a chimera of untruths.”Laura Craik – UK Evening Standard
This type of behavior is nothing new. It’s always been a part of us. In 1513, a Florentine bureaucrat named Niccolo Machiavelli gave it a name — actually, his name. In writing “The Prince,” he condoned bad behavior as long as the end goal was to elevate oneself. In a Machiavellian world, it’s always open season on suckers: “One who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.”
For the past five centuries, Machiavellianism was always synonymous with evil. It was a recognized character flaw, described as “a personality trait that denotes cunningness, the ability to be manipulative, and a drive to use whatever means necessary to gain power. Machiavellianism is one of the traits that forms the Dark Triad, along with narcissism and psychopathy.”
Now, however, that stigma seems to be disappearing. In a culture obsessed with success, Machiavellianism becomes a justifiable means to an end, so much so that we’ve given this culture its own hashtag: #scamculture: “A scam culture is one in which scamming has not only lost its stigma but is also valorized. We rebrand scamming as ‘hustle,’ or the willingness to commodify all social ties, and this is because the ‘legitimate’ economy and the political system simply do not work for millions of Americans.”
It’s a culture that’s very much at home in Silicon Valley. The tech world is steeped in Machiavellianism. Its tenets are accepted — even encouraged — business practices in the Valley. “Fake it til you make it” is tech’s modus operandi. The example of Niccolo Machiavelli has gone from being a cautionary tale to a how-to manual.
But these predatory practices come at a price. Doing business this way destroys trust. And trust is still, by far, the best strategy for our mutual benefit. In behavioral economics, there’s something called “tit for tat,” which according to Wikipedia “posits that a person is more successful if they cooperate with another person. Implementing a tit-for-tat strategy occurs when one agent cooperates with another agent in the very first interaction and then mimics their subsequent moves. This strategy is based on the concepts of retaliation and altruism.”
In countless game theory simulations, tit for tat has proven to be the most successful strategy for long-term success. It assumes a default position of trust, only moving to retaliation if required.
Our society needs trust to function properly. In a New York Times op-ed entitled “Why We Need to Address Scam Culture,” Tressie McMillan Cottom writes,
“Scams weaken our trust in social institutions, but their going mainstream — divorced from empathy for the victims or stigma for the perpetrators — means that we have accepted scams as institutions themselves.”Tressie McMillan Cottom – NY Times
The reason that trust is more effective than scamming is that predatory practices are self-limiting. You can only be a predator if you have enough prey. In a purely Machiavellian world, trust disappears — and there are no easy marks to prey upon.